Fiji close in on Pacific Nations Cup glory
June 20, 2010
Japan's Hitoshi Ono leads an attack against Samoa at Apia Park © Oceaniarugby.com
Fiji edged nearer the 2010 Pacific Nations Cup crown with a thrilling 41-38 victory over Tonga in Apia.
Trrailing 31-10 at half-time, Fiji produced a stunning second-half comeback to clinch victory and are now just one win away from a first ever PNC title. Fiji will now play Samoa next weekend, and a win in that game will see their name etched on the PNC trophy for the first time ever. The result was heartbreak for a Tonga side that suffered a similarly agonising defeat at the hands of Samoa in the opening round of matches.
Tonga got off to a flying start as fullback Vungakato Lilo scored the match's first two tries in the opening 11 minutes and both were converted by fly-half Kurt Morath to give them a 14-0 lead. However, Lilo was sent to the sin-bin midway through the half and Fiji pounced to force their way back into the match. Fullback Taniela Rawaqa kicked the resulting penalty, before the impressive Sireli Naqelevuki set up wing Malakai Bakaniceva for Fijians first try. Morath added another penalty, however, to make the scores 31-10 at half time.
Fiji struck first after the re-start with prop Campese Ma'afu taking advantage of some excellent forward play and Rawaqa added the conversion, but Tonga responded immediately through Alepini Olsson. The lock showed great strength to score Tonga's fifth try, beating four defenders, and Morath made it five from five conversions.
Fiji head coach Sam Domoni made several replacements, and they had an immediate impact as scrum-half Kelemedi Bolatagane showed excellent speed with a quick tap to make it 38-27. Captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu scored the Fijian's fourth try having received the ball on the wing from replacement Graham Dewes, and Rawaqa cut the deficit to just four points with the conversion.
With five minutes remaining Tongan hearts were broken as Fiji completed the comeback through lock Sekonaia Kalou who scored the winnng try in the corner and Rawaqa's conversion extended his leading all-time PNC points tally to 83.
Fiji captain Domoniko Waqaniburotu commented, "It was a great comeback. We made a lot of mistakes in the first half but in the second half we had to comeback. Tonga was stopping us from going wide and made us play their way in the first half. We changed this in the second half and spread the ball, which paid dividends and we scored the tries."
Elsewhere, Japan recorded their first ever Pacific Nations Cup victory over Samoa with a 31-23 win in their clash at Apia Park. The victory is only Japan's second ever victory over the Pacific Islanders, with the other coming in 1999, and the result saw the bounce back from their 22-8 defeat to Fiji last week and keep their title challenge alive.
Fly-half James Arlidge gave Japan the lead before IRB Sevens star Lolo Lui responded with two of his own to give the hosts a narrow advantage. Japan then raised their game with Arlidge conjuring a superb chip ahead that Ryan Nicholas collected before racing away for the first try of the game. Centre Nicholas then turned provider for Hirotoki Onozawa to score Japan's second in the corner, before grabbing another himself just past the half hour and the boot of Arlidge ensured Japan went into the break with a commanding 25-6 lead.
Samoa came out firing in the second half, however, and although Arlidge extended the Japanese lead to 22 points, the hosts cut out the unforced errors that had littered the first half and scored three second half tries under the sun in Apia. First Samoa's forwards set the platform for George Stowers to cross and IRB Sevens Player of the Year Mikaele Pesamino continued his excellent form from last week with a further try after Uale Mai showed great vision to create the try for the wing to score in the corner.
Lui missed the conversion before Arlidge added a drop goal for Japan to take his match tally to 16 and extend the lead to 31-16 with minutes remaining. Pesamino added his second and Samoa's third, again created by Mai, but it was too little to late as Japan held on to a much awaited victory.
Japan coach John Kirwan commented, "It was an incredible performance by the players as they knew they did not play well last weekend against Fiji. There was more accuracy and courage and the players deserve it. Inspiration comes from within and we knew that it would be physical against Samoa but I salute the players. There were six minutes of extra time but the players kept on tackling. We knew Samoa would be strong and aggressive at the break down but we just ran the ball from everywhere."
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